"Toinaments," Monica Chieco says. She bowls in regional "toinaments." She lugs around heavy "bohls." Sometimes she throws strikes, and sometimes she throws "speh-uhs." In anyone else, that mix of bowling talk and nasally vowels would threaten to erupt into the kind of New York meanness that unnerves Southerners. But when Monica talks about bowling, she makes it sound like a support group -- a highly competitive support group.
When Monica left New York for Houston five years ago, following her oil-and-gas futures job, her bowling coach advised her to turn pro. There were lots of tournaments in the Southwest, he said, lots of opportunity. And so, at the seasoned age of 40, she became a professional athlete. Bowling is that kind of sport: You can do it well all your life.
The Southwest did, in fact, turn out to be the land of tenpin opportunity. Luci Bonneau, the leader of Ladies' Choice, asked Monica to sub for the team. Monica jumped at the chance. "I mean, this was the top team in Texas," she says, still awed. "They have such ambition! People want to be on this team so bad!" In '97, she became a full-fledged member.
She kept her day job, of course. She wasn't one of the "big girls," like Carolyn Dorin-Ballard, who has a fan club, her own line of bowling clothes and flies to tournaments all over the country. Monica, like Luci, was a regional pro, which meant that she carpooled to tournaments on the weekends and split the hotel cost with a roommate. Pro bowlers tend to know each other well.
Usually the stories they tell about each other make you laugh. For instance, Luci once informed a new team member, a shy kid fresh out of college, that she had to wear not only a red shirt when she competed, but a red bra and panties, too. It's for luck, Luci explained, deadpan. If you don't do it, we'll lose. The kid bought herself red underwear, and the rest of the team never let her live it down.
Sometimes, though, bowlers' stories make you cry. In '97, around the time Monica became a full member of Ladies' Choice, Luci was diagnosed with breast cancer and began suffering through aggressive experimental treatments. "Bless her heart, she tried everything," says Donna Conners, a longtime member of the team. Donna was Luci's best friend, but even around Donna, Luci didn't complain much. She tried to look "up."
In '99, Ladies' Choice was aiming for its eighth state championship. The tournament, in Port Arthur, was slated for Father's Day weekend, only three days after a round of Luci's chemo. Still, Luci wanted to play, and she thought she'd be able. She took the chemo, then went straight home and slept 24 hours. She got up, ate what she could and worked in her flower bed. Then she and Donna drove to Port Arthur.
When it was time for Ladies' Choice to bowl, the high score looked forbiddingly hard to beat. We'll just bowl for what we can get, Luci said. We'll take our time. We'll get what we can.
Luci bowled well. Everyone bowled well. In the ninth frame -- when every team member still had one last shot at the pins -- Wanda Chovanec, who was keeping track of the score, looked at Luci and said, We have enough. Meaning, We've already won. And we've already broken the state record.
Luci said, Let's get what we can.
What they got were lots more strikes. They finished with a team score of 3,350. The state record was smashed.
When the hugging and crying and ceremony were over, Luci said to Donna, "We have 35 minutes left before Dillard's closes." They celebrated with a half-hour shopping binge, blowing their prize money before they received it.
That was Luci's last tournament. She died in October. The jeweler hadn't yet finished the team's championship rings.
At Monica's suggestion, the team changed its name. They're now Luci's Ladies' Choice.
On a Friday evening in August, Monica drives to Dynamic Lanes as soon as she gets off work. The place is packed. The pro-am game sold out for both Friday and Saturday nights, all 32 lanes, with 144 players each night -- maybe the biggest tournament ever in Houston. It's a testament to Luci, Monica thinks. Everybody loved her.
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," booms an amplified male voice. "Welcome to the first annual -- and I hope this is the first annual -- Luci Bonneau Pro-Am." From the wings, Monica watches Donna take the microphone. For the last six months, Donna has worked every night to organize this tournament. It's a benefit for the Stehlin Foundation, the cancer research group at St. Joseph Hospital, where Luci was treated. "Luci would be extremely proud to see all of you tonight," Donna says. Her voice wobbles.
There's more wobbly talk from more people who knew Luci. Then a loud bell goes off: The eulogy is over; let the games begin. The regular overhead lights give way to the eerie blue ones used for "Cosmic Bowling," popular with the midnight college crowd, and the white pins glow and seem to float at the end of the lane. The loudspeakers blast a processional for the pros, a hey-hey-hey song with a thumping bass line. They march down the aisle in pairs, like bridesmaids and groomsmen. The crowd applauds.
Monica and James Browning are the fifth couple, and they stop at Lanes 9 and 10, where their first set of amateurs awaits. The music stops, and the players turn to face the spectators. The announcer introduces the players one by one, and when he gets to Monica -- three 300 games, winner of the 1999 Texas Bluebonnet Queens title, a member of New York City's bowling hall of fame -- she looks almost embarrassed. Pro-ams always make her self-conscious.
There's a lot of money involved here; the serious prize money comes from the pro tournament that accompanies the pro-am. The pro-ams, though, are packed with amateurs who've paid to play with the sport's elite. The amateurs study the pros' gear, and their form. They even watch the pros' behavior when they're not holding a ball: what the pros drink, how they talk to each other, how they handle victory or defeat. At a pro-am, Monica tries extra hard to behave graciously, to be the kind of role model that she thinks all professional athletes ought to be. She considers herself bowling's ambassador. When she bowls badly at a pro-am, she keeps the cursing under her breath.
James doesn't look at all nervous. He is, in many ways, Monica's opposite: male to her female, Texas to her New Yawk, black to her white. If Monica is bowling's ambassador, James is its joker. "Moanie," he calls his partner, and "superstar," and he claims that she "bowls like a girl." Soon after they've said hello to their amateurs -- most of them people Monica already knows from Dynamic -- James grins and looks slyly at his partner. "Oh, I love Moanie," he says when someone asks what it's like to play with her. And then, with everyone listening, he teases, "I'm gonna marry her."
Monica blushes a deep, sixth-grade red: "I can't believe you!"
"She's my teammate," James explains, highly satisfied. "I gotta mess with her. If I don't mess with her, she thinks I'm mad."
"I have to work now," she says, mock-disgusted, and takes refuge in signing a stack of "I BOWLED WITH THE PROS" certificates. In the lower left corner of each page, there's a photo of Luci, a pretty woman with high cheekbones, large eyes and short feathered hair. It's a photo Monica has never seen before, and looking at it makes her even quieter.
When it's Monica's turn to bowl, she approaches the lane seriously. She's a no-frills, classic-form bowler, the same as Luci was. All focus, she rolls the ball toward the pins -- a strike! -- but grimaces as she limps back to the chairs. Last year she had a bone spur that required surgery, and the foot still bothers her.
"That hurt so bad," says Monica.
"She's a whiner," says James.
Monica gets quiet again. She's thinking about Luci, who never whined. And she's thinking about another friend, one in New York, who just had a mastectomy. Besides the breast, she lost feeling under her right arm and on that side of her back. On the phone, she told Monica that she's going to bowl left-handed from now on, that she wants to become the first woman to earn 300s -- perfect games, as rare as no-hitters -- with both her right and left hands.
After a few minutes, Monica rouses herself and chats with a couple of amateurs, Eric Wu and Vince Markwalter. It's the idle, friendly talk that sometimes seems as much the point of bowling as knocking down pins.
Eric, who looks thoroughly Americanized, says that he has a wife in China who doesn't speak English. Monica looks shocked. Some people, he tells her, say he has the perfect marriage.
Vince jokes that he's lost five pins off his average every time he's had a child.
"That's why I'm not going to have kids," says Monica.
Monica points out Luci's sister Cathy Hill, a dead ringer for Luci. "Freaks me out," says Monica.
"Really?" asks Vince. "That's how I want to go."
Monica doesn't bowl especially well that night, and over the weekend, doesn't do much better in the pro tournament. She and a different partner, Derek Williams, miss making the finals by a measly 14 pins. "I wish it had went better," she says, "but you can't get down on yourself."
In other ways, Monica is deeply pleased by the tournament's storybook ending. Luci's son Jess Bonneau won the pro-am; the pro tournament went to Donna, Luci's best friend, and her partner, Mark Scroggins.
In other words, Jess and Donna, two of the people Luci loved most, won her tournament.
After the tournament, Jess called Donna. "Can you believe it?" he asked.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.